Cordis – Maria Yotamara Umeokoli, is a tour operator and the founder and chief executive officer of Mardis Travels and Tours, a destination management company, she spoke with ANDREW IRO OKUNGBOWA on her sojourn in the travel world and her commitment to conquer the world and leave behind a lasting legacy
Cordis – Mara Yotomara Umeokolie, who hails from Anambra State, is a young, pretty professional, who at a very young age decided to cut a niche for herself in the travel world, devoted to promoting tour as a tour operator. She is one of the millennials in the Nigerian tourism sector who have taken the sector by storm through exploits as destination managers. She founded Mardis Travels and Tours on May 10, 2018 and since then has never looked back as she trudges through the rough path of Nigeria’s fledging tourism sector, with a commitment to efficiently promote Nigerian tourism. Presently a student of the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), studying Environmental Toxicology, however, she has in her kitten already an advanced diploma in air ticketing and reservation/tourism; certification in customer service relation in Universal School of Aviation; certification in tour marketing and management from Dubai College of Tourism; and certification in Amadeus and Sabre Network.
In love with tourism
Young Umeokoli has an uncanny devotion and love for tourism, as she tells you that it is a world that she took to from her tender age. ‘‘Tourism is something I have ever loved, I love discoveries, and I love nature. Tourism is something I chose myself because of the love I have for it,’’. Adding that: ‘‘God is my greatest inspiration here.’’
A commitment to discovering Nigeria’s untapped treasures
While at it, her interest, she says is treading the unbeaten and unknown paths where many fear to tread. Knowing that Nigeria is vast blessed as a tourist destination, she tells you of her knack for seeking out hidden treasures from among Nigeria’s troves and promoting them to the global audience. ‘‘I intend discovering and promoting untapped destinations in Nigeria,’’ she says, betraying her iron cast resolve to leave her name on the footprint of history. Furthermore, ‘‘my mission as a tour operator is to discover and showcase untapped destinations in Nigeria especially in the eastern part of Nigeria,’’ says Umeokoli.
First tour package as watershed
After two years of incubation, she finally got her first break last year with her first tour package with 18 tourists on exploration of Lekki Conservation Centre (LCC), Lagos. She began with a tentative step but eventually it turned out to be a most cherished moment for her and a watershed in her short stint as a young tour operator. ‘‘At first I was a little bit scared because I didn’t know how it would go but it turned out to be one of the happiest moments of my life. The reviews the tourists gave after the tour was amazing and fulfilling.’’ Although she recorded higher numbers of tourists in her subsequent tours, she however, says that her first tour package is her biggest success story. ‘‘My biggest tour package success story would be my first tour package ever even when my second had more tourists but the happiness I got from my first ever tour is my biggest success story. ‘‘Am always happy in all my tours but my first was exceptional.’’
Not discouraged by numbers
The most valuable lesson she learnt from her first tour experience, she says is not to be discouraged by the numbers of tourists. ‘‘I learnt in my early years to always not to be discouraged with the number of tourists that turn up for your tours and also to bring out my best in anything am doing.’’
Acquiring the right marketing strategy
So far, she says it is not all happy stories yet as in self – evaluation, she realises that she needs to do more in order to have a thriving tour business. One of the missing links, she discover is in the area of marketing strategy, which is something that she is working hard to overcome. ‘‘Marketing strategy is something I know I don’t possess. I believe it is something that is affecting my business. Showcasing a beautiful destination is quite different from selling a package to that destination but I am learning from the best people around me,’’ she says. However, she is determined to turn the bent with the help of God. ‘‘I would say God has been my utmost helper. My aim is to remain consistent in what I love doing and never to look at the challenges but to find a way in solving and learning from it and this has kept me going.’’
She speaks of the future in glowing terms, as she foresees a glorious future for herself. ‘‘I see the future so bright for me because what I have in store is yet to be uncovered.
Nigeria tourism is on the rise
Umeokoli also speaks of Nigerian tourism in superlative terms as she tells you that tourism is on the rise. ‘‘Nigerian tourism is on the rise with different awareness being created by different tour operators in the country and most especially Naija7 Wonders team. The citizens are gradually seeing the importance of tourism and also appreciating the wonders that we’ve got. Nigeria as a destination has a whole lot more than what people think and see.
Nigeria is a hard sell
Despite her optimism about Nigerian tourism, she says Nigeria as a destination is still a hard sell for tour operators. ‘‘Nigeria is definitely a hard sell. Some Nigerians don’t see Nigeria as a destination with beautiful attractions in it while some give one excuse or the other. ‘‘For instance, a potential tourist who wants to join our trip to Obudu Mountain Resort in April said he wouldn’t embark on the journey if there are no security personnel with us because he wouldn’t want to be abducted or harmed. There are still much to be done about the negativity in people’s minds about the country.’’
I enjoy meeting people
‘‘As a tour operator, meeting people during tours, be it solo or packaged tour, is one thing I enjoy. It gives way to learning more about people, culture and so many other things. Packaging tours for me doesn’t only mean to take people to visit an attraction and have fun, but also a channel of connecting with strangers to becoming friends. It is also a way for me to stop tribalism among our people.’’
Govt has a big role to play in tourism
Nigeria government, she says has a vital role to play in the development and promotion of tourism in the country as she outlines some of these roles: ‘‘The government has a big role to play in the tourism industry. Some of the attractions are not easily accessible due to their poor road network and also no good accommodations to harbour these tourists and it keeps bringing down our efforts as a tour operators. ‘‘Destinations such as hills, mountains, rocks, waterfalls need to have lavatories built at the base to avoid having filthy environment. Tourism studies should also be made a compulsory course in schools to create more awareness about tourism in the country.’’
Impact of COVID – 19 on Nigerian tourism
‘It affected positively and also negatively. The positive effect of the pandemic was that it made tour operators to look more into domestic tourism and also to appreciate it. More attractions were discovered. The negative impact is that lots of tour packages, seminars, conferences, exhibitions and many more were cancelled. ‘‘When going on tours we don’t just talk about tourism but also preach about observing COVID -19 protocols and making sure it is been adhered to and that is a little bit difficult because some tourists don’t believe that the virus is real.’’
You can never get enough of Obudu Mountain Resort
Although as a tour operator she has a number of favourites destinations, however, Obudu Mountain Resort tops her list. ‘‘Well, Obudu Mountain Resort is one of the most beautiful resorts in the world and it is my best domestic destination because it has a lot of features in one destination. It is a destination you can never get enough of.
Egypt offers a lot
‘‘My best international destination would be Egypt. Egypt has a lot of historical treasures that wow all who visit and lots of things are being discovered,’’ she says.
Enugu State on her mind
While on her basket of destinations to explore Enugu State tops the list because ‘‘there is more to the state than we can possibly imagine.’’
Let’s develop our sites to standard and be good story tellers
To have Nigerians interested in domestic tourism rather than foreign destinations, she says: ‘‘We all need to develop our tourist centres to be standard, quality pictures of the tour sites would draw more attention or also what I call suspense stories. A good tour operator should also be a good story teller that can make a story of a site so inviting and making people wanting to find out more.’’